Managers today often perceive relatively little hierarchical “distance” between them and their subordinates. Yes, they might shoulder certain responsibilities and make the final call in certain situations. But they generally see themselves as part of the team.
That perception, though, is in many ways a consequence of the very authority they hold (and their subordinates don’t).
However insignificant the difference between you and your subordinates might seem to you, it matters a great deal to them. And because employees behave according to how they – and not you – see the world, that perceived difference in authority influences your every interaction together.
No matter how close you feel to your employees, then, your authority ensures that they steer clear of your hot buttons, walk carefully when you are having a bad day, and tell you things in ways you will find most palatable.
And because they do this without telling you, only by patient and careful search could you spot the shadow your authority inadvertently casts.
A mid-level manager who attended one of our presentations once shared these ideas with her own supervisor. “Thank goodness there’s none of that kind of stuff between us,” said that leader, with whom she had an extremely close and collaborative working relationship.
“Well…” the woman hesitated.
“What?” he exclaimed, sitting up in his chair. “Like what?”
In later telling the story to us, the woman said that it was at that point that she pulled up her mental list of off-limits topics – note the mere fact that she had a list of “safe” and “unsafe” subjects – and mentioned the most innocuous, most inoffensive one she could find.
The suddenly stony face of her supervisor turned several shades of color in rapid succession. A few tense moments passed in silence and then she stood up and backed out of the room without another word being said by either of them.
About 20 minutes later the supervisor came to her office and said gruffly, “I guess I proved the point, didn’t I?”
The point that bears emphasis here is this was a great boss, one the woman couldn’t praise enough. And yet the influence of his organizational authority created a collection of red lines that were nearly invisible to him, but were every-day realities to his subordinates.
How much do each of us work to find our own red lines and the ways they are projected on those we oversee? How consistently do we manage the effects of our authority? How proactively do we drive fear from the workplace and consciously work to make an environment that welcomes all employee insights and observations – and not just the ones we prefer to hear?